Documentary Recommendations

I hope this to be an ongoing thread because I really enjoy watching documentaries and am always on the hunt for new ones.

I don’t particularly like the crime/sad ones like Capturing the Friedmans or Dear Zachary though I can certainly appreciate them. Don’t let that deter you from sharing though, because I’m sure many out there would be glad to hear of them.

My inaugural recommendation:

The Queen of Versailles 2012 - won Sundance best director, about the ups and downs of a timeshare tycoon and his “trophy wife” building America’s biggest house.

official site: The Queen of Versailles (Official Movie Site) - Directed by Lauren Greenfield - Sundance Film Festival U.S. Directing Award: Documentary - Available on DVD & Blu-ray™ - Trailer, Pictures & More
imdb: The Queen of Versailles (2012) - IMDb

Playing in select theaters and DVD comes out Nov. 13

THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA is a six-episode series on the history of the national parks, directed by Ken Burns still showing on PBS, but you may be able to get them on disc, too. Very well done and quite enjoyable.

Chasing Madoff. Told in first person from a guy who spotted the scam 10 years before the pyramid collapsed. And tried for 10 years to get the SEC to listen.

And if you can find it…MARJOE from 1972

Marjoe Gortner later had roles in Earthquake and When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? in which he was excellent.

Two of my recent favorite docs that are very entertaining and not sad:

Tabloid (Errol Morris, 2011): Centers on the Mormon sex in chains case, but also looks at the role of the media in society (particularly Britain’s tabloid press) and the ongoing fascination with celebrity culture. A crazy story very well told.

Exit through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010): About Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant in L.A., who is obsessed with street art (particularly the work of the famously elusive Banksy) and who eventually becomes a famous street artist himself, even though his work is sniffed at by some for its commercial aspect. There’s been some controversy over whether this is actually a documentary or just some kind of elaborate mockumentary-like commentary on modern art, but it’s a good time either way.

Try these:

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
It’s not just about sushi, it’s about a fanatical dedication to excellence.

A Man Named Pearl
A self-taught topiary artist. Totally amazing plant sculptures.

Just watched this the other day.

More on outsider artists:

Marwencol, about a guy who suffers permanent mental and physical damage after a beating one night coming out of the bar, and goes on to create an entire WWII village, with mythology, as self therapy (he’s uninsured). Sounds weird, but it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and I watched it three times before finally writing an essay on it.

In a Dream, about a mosaic artist here in Philly, by his son.

In the Realms of the Unreal, about an outsider artist who died in 1974; more about his work than his life.

Beauty Is Embarrassing

Trailer here.

Just saw this one and loved it. Its subject is Wayne White, the artist behind the puppets on Pee Wee’s Playhouse (among many other things).

A joyful, funny, inspirational movie about art. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

In the same theme, the recent Being Elmo. Joyful, funny, moving and heartbreaking.

One of my favorites is Rock School, the documentary about the Paul Green School of Rock Music. Hollywood stole the idea and rushed out the Jack Black movie while this documentary was still shooting, Black very obviously basing his performance on Green (although the documentary is rated R for language.) It wouldn’t be so bad if confusion with the Jack Black movie hadn’t destroyed the documentary’s chances at the box office, forcing it to close after one weekend.

Does it have to be a recent documentary?
Because one of my favorites was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series.
Incredible documentary on science in general from 1980 which remarkably remains somewhat current.
In the DVD release, his wife appears at the end of some episodes for science “updates” since originally aired.

I loved this one:

One that I liked: When Two Won’t Do (it looks like someone posted parts of it to YouTube)

Two documentary filmmakers make a movie about polyamory as a way to sort out their own romantic relationship. It’s a bit poignant sometimes, but not horrifying like Capturing the Friedmans.

I have recommended a few music ones here in the past:

  • Tom Dowd: The Language of Music (all links are Amazon listings) - Dowd was the guy at the recording desk for everything from Ray Charles, to Aretha, to John Coltrane, to Cream to the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Oh, and before that, he was a junior mathematician on the Manhattan Project. One of the best music doc’s I have ever seen. Essential viewing.

  • Les Paul: Chasing Sound- originally done as part of PBS American Masters series. What do you say about a guy who innovated solidbody electric guitars, tape echo, over-dub recording and multi-tracking - oh, and had a number of big-hit pop songs like How High the Moon? It would be hard to make a bad documentary out of such a fascinating guy, but no worries - it’s really well done.

  • The Ramones: End of the Century- the band is made up of the most idiosyncratic characters - i.e., Joey Ramone barely able to function due to OCD and other disorders; Dee Dee working as a rent boy; Johnny as this hyper-aggressive bully type and Tommy wanting to produce pop records. But on top of that, understanding how their music emerged from classic, commercial pop, and in response to the bloated prog rock of the day is wonderful to see. And since they never made it as a big as the shadow they ultimately ended up casting, watching their trajectory is really revealing. Very well done.

Hope that helps.

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virgina by Julien Nitzburg and American Hollow by Rory Kennedy are two of my favorites. They are both stories of mountain people and their hardscrabble lives. Love them.

If you can find it,Best Boy.

“Man On Wire” about the tightrope artist who rigged a cable between WTC1 & 2.

“Endurance” about the Shackleton voyage.

I like to watch CBC’s Doc Zone. I really enjoy their in-depth looks at current topics.


If you can handle his style (and subject matter), pick almost any of Werner Herzog’s docs. Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Encounters at the End of the World are a good place to start.

Rory Kennedy’s American Hollow, about an unchanged Appalachian family in Kentucky. I haven’t seen it yet because I can’t get hold of it. I think if I were still living in East Tn I could find a copy but I couldn’t get it thru the Inter-library Loan. One library responded and said they had it but wouldn’t send it out in fear it wouldn’t be returned. Is that even allowed?
Along the same vein, but taking place up north, is My Brother’s Keeper.